–Winter of 1998
Sun-Lit Certainty or Shadowed Insecurity?
Thanks to my friends, I’ve been on a reading binge lately. My list includes: Latimer: The Apostle to the English (thanks to Dr. Kinlaw); Anatomy of a Conversion: The Messages and Mission of John and Charles Wesley (thanks to Dr. Brown); and Lives of Eminent Methodist Ministers (thanks to Uncle Bob). Reading about the English Reformation, the birth of Methodism, and the colorful men who moved forward with its message renewed my love for and commitment to our historic holiness message.
Interestingly, though, I found a common doctrinal thread running through all of these books. The Reformers were burned at the stake for it, the Wesleys were banned from many Anglican pulpits because of it, and the Methodist preachers placed it at the very heart of the Wesleyan message. It was the doctrine of assurance – the simple fact that man can know that he is saved.
The Reformers contended that a man can know that he is justified by grace through faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Samuel Wesley’s dying words to his sons John and Charles were “the witness, son, the witness; that is the proof of Christianity.” Wesley’s own heartwarming experience at Aldersgate convinced him that a man can have a clear knowledge of the salvation experience. In his sermon, “The Witness of the Spirit,” Wesley defines the testimony of the Sprit as “an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God directly witnesses to my spirit that I am a child of God, that Jesus Christ hath loved me and given himself for me, and that all my sins are blotted out and I, even I, am reconciled to God.” Wesley, later in life, after many years of developing thought on the subject, made it clear that the objective witness of God’s Word is and must be our sure anchor. He also realized that the conscious witness of the Spirit may dim or fade in relation to a person’s mood, emotions or physical condition. However, he contended to the very end that a man can know that he is saved, and that justifying faith will bring a sweet calm to the heart, enabling the believer to rest in the arms of Jesus. Hence, historic Methodism still has at its heart the truth that “all men can know they are saved.”
On one occasion, when Wesley was visiting Bristol, the bishop of Bristol, Joseph Butler, endeavored to stop Wesley from preaching. Their dispute centered around the doctrine of assurance. The bishop contended such a doctrine was not true to the Scripture or the teachings of the church. This happened sometime in the late 1730’s. Thirteen years later, as the bishop lay dying, he approached his death without the assurance of salvation. He called for his chaplain and told him that he was afraid to die. The chaplain encouraged him with the thought that Christ is our Saviour, but the bishop plaintively asked, “How can I know that Christ is my Savior?” Some forty years later as Wesley lay dying, the words that fell from his lips were these, “The best of all is, God is with us.”
Bishop Kern notes the startling contrast between these two dying men. There is the “sun-lit certainty of Wesley’s experience and the shadowed insecurity of a bishop’s soul.” The bishop “could prove the existence of God by analogies from nature but did not know Him in the peace of an inward mystical and redeeming fellowship.”
I’m so grateful that I can sing with Wesley, “My God is reconciled; His pardoning voice I hear, He owns me for His child, I can no longer fear; With confidence I now draw nigh, and, ‘Father, Abba, Father,’ cry.” Can you sing that verse with me?